By Gage Nutter
There is just something about the town of Amherst, Mass. for Springfield College men’s basketball.
Springfield’s most historic win up until Wednesday night was undoubtedly its one-point victory over Julius “Dr. J” Erving and his UMass Redmen back on Feb. 16th 1971.
The Pride’s 71-70 win on Wednesday night against No. 1 Amherst College might not usurp the defeat of the electric Erving and the Redmen, but it is undoubtedly in the conversation.
The Pride came into the game as the underdogs. The David to Amherst’s Goliath. The Pride walked into Blake Arena with a 3-5 record, with losses to Division III powerhouses like Williams, Trinity, and Keene. It almost seemed inevitable that Amherst would be next on the list of heavyweights to beat down on the Pride.
However, the coaching staff, players, and Springfield enthusiasts had different plans. A night that was by most expected to end in dismay, ended in jubilation. A night that was expected to end with players and patrons leaving Blake Arena with their heads down, ended with fans storming the court and embracing their team with smiles from ear to ear, and a tear or two of happiness.
They had done it. The Pride had beaten the no. 1 team in the country.
Although there is no doubt Jake Ross (21 points and 10 rebounds) was the statistical leader for the Pride, this game was arguably the most well-rounded and consistent Springfield has played for 40 straight minutes. Whether it was a key rebound by the agile Keegan McDonough, a gritty put-back bucket by Kevin Durkin, or a pinpoint pass by the junior captain Andy McNulty, everyone who stepped on the court for the Pride contributed in a major way.
“This was the most complete game we have played this season; that was the difference for us,” said Springfield head coach Charlie Brock. “Everybody on the bench was in it and so was the crowd. This was a full Springfield win.”
The better part of the first half looked like a track meet. Both teams pushed the tempo from the get-go. After a plethora of turnovers by both teams, each side decided to slow the game down and perform surgery on each other’s defense, instead of blindly hacking and slashing.
The commander of the Pride’s defense throughout the night not only from a vocal perspective but physical as well, was undoubtedly freshman sensation Jake Ross. Most see the type of statistics Ross generates on any given night offensively and can assume that he is a great offensive player, but it’s important not to overlook the impact he makes on defense as well.
Blake Arena was bursting at the seams with screams, clapping, and stomping for the entire 40 minutes, but still fans could hear Ross yelling, “We need to talk on defense! Let me hear you guys!.”
Ross explained, if there is something that he takes Pride in when it comes to his game, it is his defense.
“I think once you believe you can defend any team, you can beat any team,” said Ross. “We have not played two good halves of defense this season besides against Trinity, but tonight we showed what we are capable of.”
As the first half wore on the energy stayed high. Even when Amherst would make a big play, like a three-pointer, or convert a and-one, the Springfield faithful and the Pride on the court did not waver. By halftime, the score was 37-28, Pride.
It soon became apparent by halftime that this game was like no other the Pride had played up until that point. Players were going the extra mile for loose balls and the fight for rebounds under the basket eerily resembled that of a bar fight at times. This game was different.
Throughout the first half, and most of the game, there was a 6-foot-2 player for the Pride that was bumping chests and getting rebounds over players that were, at some points, eight inches taller than him. He finished the game with eight rebounds, and that player was freshman Keegan McDonough.
McDonough likes to bring energy to the court in any way possible, and if that involves getting rebounds, that’s what he strives to do.
“I like to bring energy to the floor in any way I can,” said McDonough. “If I am not shooting well then that means I have to hustle and get rebounds, it is one of my favorite things to do. Getting second-chance points is an easy way to get the team hyped up.”
In the second half, like a championship boxer in the late rounds of a bout, Amherst started to fight back.
Amherst’s shooting from the field was mediocre in the first half (33%), but the ball started to find the bottom of the net as the second half chugged along.
Towards the end of the game, both teams were in foul trouble. After three straight fouls and six straight free throws from Amherst, the Pride held a slim 71-68 lead with 1:01 to go.
As Amherst made its way down the court, the Pride faithful made it to their feet and cheered louder than they had all night. The smell of victory, as well as a hint of nervousness was in the air.
With around ten seconds to go, Jayde Dawson pulled up for a potentially game-tying three, Ross, who had been making highlight-film caliber plays offensively all night, made a defensive play worthy of the highlight reel.
Ross got a finger on the ball and swatted the shot back to the ground.
“To be honest I thought he was going to go to the hoop,” said Ross. “But when he pulled up I just closed out hard and was able to get a piece of it. I just tried to keep playing and stay in the moment.”
However, amidst the confusion and euphoria of the block, Amherst retained the ball and found Eric Conklin left wide open down low for a layup to make the Springfield lead 71-70 with eight seconds to go. Ross was immediately fouled and was put on the free throw line. After missing both of his free throws, Johnny McCarthy got the rebound and took five dribbles toward the right side of the key and put up a desperation three-pointer. Heath Post secured the rebound with 2.6 seconds to go and dribbled his way to mid-court and was met by Springfield College fans and students who had left their spot in the bleachers to congratulate and celebrate with their team.
As the pandemonium began to settle down and patrons made their way out the front doors of Blake Arena, Pride point guard Stanley Davis made his way over to Brock who was standing near the Pride’s bench. Brock gave Davis a hug and congratulated him on a job well done. As Davis made his way back to the locker room, Brock yelled to him, “Hey Stanley, lift is cancelled tomorrow!” Davis jumped for joy and began to clap as he made his way back to tell the guys the good news.
Not a bad way to cap off such a great night in Pride men’s basketball history.